“How hard could it be,” those were the dumbest words I ever uttered, and yet they came from my mouth too many times to count.
There were five rooms. A bedroom, kitchen, office, garage, and the main room at the center of the house. Most of the gang was hanging out in the main room. A couple of people were in the garage. Someone was sleeping in the bedroom. No one was in the kitchen; that was my way in. I tried to be strategic about handling the situation. Everyone had semiautomatic guns, but that didn’t worry me.
Joan left out something I considered very important. The gang occupying her house; they were a bunch of kids. Most of them weren’t old enough to use an oven on their own. Had they been adults, I might have been concerned. I was sure if I needed to, I could kick them out like a couple of footballs.
I didn’t want anyone to get hurt.
If they started shooting, bullets were sure to bounce off my body and do significant damage. A bunch of kids was the only thing standing between me and getting my monster, but I wasn’t about to let anyone die. I had to disarm them.
Rather than running in and punching whoever I saw first, I crept inside. The thing about being so skinny was I could hide pretty well. Behind a lamp, in a cabinet, under a bed. I was almost competent enough to call myself swift. Moving through the house, I picked up weapon after weapon, disarming each room until I was the only person carrying a gun. It was perfect. No one was getting hurt, but I may have been overconfident. I cleared the bedroom, the main room, and the office. But by then, the little bastards started to notice their guns were missing. When I made it to the garage, everyone was on high alert.
I almost did it. I almost did the dead without life being lost, but they found me.
Standing in front of the garage door, I froze as three kids aimed their guns at my head.
“Wait, don’t!” I pleaded, but it was too late.
They shot me, and as expected, their bullets bounced off my skin. Someone was hit by at least two of the ricocheted shots. Unlike adults, when the kids saw I was bulletproof, they ran off. They left their fallen friend behind, and I was the only one to watch as he bled out. I was speechless. I was shocked.
Someone died. Another person died because of my involvement. I had to remind myself I was on a mission to save my best friend and rid the city of a megalomaniac.
My means of reaching those goals felt insane.
It seemed short-sighted to push past the death of someone so young simply because I wanted to save someone I knew. What made that kid’s life any less important? Nothing. But he was dead. People died every day in that city, but the difference was my involvement or lack thereof.
Nonetheless, I got the job done, and I had to keep moving.
“That was fast,” Joan said as I approached her.
With blood staining the bottoms of my shoes, I stood mortified. It was like the bank heist all over again. That feeling of existential doom was more solemn the second time around. At times I felt I faced something worse than death. Not only could I not die, but I had to witness others suffer. It was sick.
“I want my monster,” I demanded.
“Patients, Twig, I haven’t sat down yet,” Joan said.
She was about to eat. I got another person killed, for her, and she was about to have lunch. I couldn’t blame Joan. She didn’t say I had to hurt anyone, but I knew she would have. Had I not been the one to clean house, she would have been worse. Joan wouldn’t have cared. Joan would have killed everyone and felt nothing. God, Section 2 was horrible. Mock City was awful.
“I want my monster, now,” I reiterated before she had a chance to actually sit.
I might have been saving her. The little cantina didn’t look safe. The tables and chairs were liable to give someone tetanus. Still, she glanced at me as if surprised I put my foot down.
“Alright, if you’re so eager,” she commented sarcastically.
The day was halfway through. King wasn’t going to be happy about my taking so long. Even if he didn’t give me a deadline, I had to report back or find a way to let him know when the Trio was distracted. I imagined if I took too long, Cloud would suffer. Every minute spent in The Play Pen felt like time wasted.
Maybe I should have faced The Trio on my own.
Was I cowardly? I went to outlandish lengths just to find something else to fight my battles. I made it over the electrified fence. I took multiple gunshots, ninja stars, and energy beams without missing a stride. I was more than the average citizen. Somehow, I was still worried about facing “them” on my own. Maybe its because they were my heroes. The Trio gave me hope before I found my own. Without them, I may not have wanted to become a hero myself. Sure they hurt my self-esteem, denied me, and Kid tried to kill me, but they were still my heroes.
They were “the” heroes, not me.
I got people killed. I couldn’t fight my own battles. I endangered the lives of others. I was closer to being a villain, but I didn’t want to fight the good guys. Either way, after all the work I went through, leaving Section 2 empty-handed would have been a waste of effort.
“What’s the matter, did the hoodlums sour your lemonade,” Joan joked while she escorted me to a place I’d yet to explore.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
“Someone got hurt, didn’t they,” she continued.
That sultry voice seemed so demented.
Kids didn’t get a free pass. That city didn’t favor anyone, but the young were most vulnerable. I saw that. I knew that, but being directly involved made it real.
It was always real.
I was once a kid in the city. I suppose I forgot what it was like. I made myself forget. That’s what people did when they wanted to survive. They understood the horror, but for the sake of living, they put it in the back of their minds. I put it in the back of my mind. So far back. Too far back.
“Where are you taking me?” I questioned.
“You said you needed a monster? Well, all the monsters are kept here,” Joan explained.
She took me inside a building marked with a red star, down so many flights of stairs, I lost count, and through the last door on the right. On the other side of that door was mayhem.
It was an arena the size of a football field. To the left were hundreds of cages stacked like building blocks that contained monsters of varying sizes and breeds. To the right were seating areas overlooking a fenced off battleground in the center of the floor. There was a fight already in progress between some sort of snake beast and an ice bear. From the looks of people throwing money around, it was easy to see they were betting on the fights.
I thought the city was worth its heroes. I thought the City was worth saving. Maybe Mock City was nothing but poison.
“What is this,” I asked.
“Beast Battles,” Joan informed me while we made our way into the stands. “Anyone who owns a monster can enter into a fight,” she added.
“How does this help me?”
“If you need something big and bad, buy it from someone here,” she answered.
The monsters were killing each other. Blood was dispersed like rain. Entrails became fertilizer on the unkempt battleground. All the while, countless voices roared in celebration. I lost myself in the show.
My mind only returned to its senses at the end of the match. The snake won, but despite being victorious, a group of gunmen pooled into the arena to gun the beast down. I turned my attention back to Joan, but again, she was already leaving me. No one ever respected me enough to give their full attention. I could have chased after her, but she made good on her end of the deal.
I found the monsters.